Decayed mining town gets 2nd life as place for Taiwanese tourists to pet its wandering cats

HOUTONG, Taiwan (AP) — A surfeit of cats is giving a second life to a decayed Taiwanese coal-mining town that last prospered in the 1970s.

Visitors' raves on local blogs have helped draw dozens of cat lovers to fondle, frolic and photograph the 100 or so resident felines in Houtong, one of several industrial communities in decline since Taiwan's railroads electrified and oil grew as a power source.

Most towns have never recovered, but this tiny community of 200 is fast reinventing itself as a cat lover's paradise.

"It was more fun than I imagined," said 31-year-old administrative assistant Yu Li-hsin, who visited from Taipei. "The cats were clean and totally unafraid of people. I'll definitely return."

On a recent weekday afternoon, dozens of white, black, gray and calico-colored cats wandered freely amid Houtong's craggy byways, while visitors memorialized the scene with cell phone cameras and tickled the creatures silly with feather-tipped sticks.

The cats' reaction seemed to range from indifference to reluctant engagement.

Locals are delighted with the tourist influx, seeing it as an antidote to Houtong's stark decline etched in dozens of abandoned structures and acres of unkempt overgrowth.

Indonesian-born Sumarni, 35, who married a local man six years ago, says she is grateful to the tourists for relieving the town's isolation.

"My 3-year-old daughter gets to play with some children of her age when visitors bring their kids here," she said. "There is really not any playmate of her age in the community."

Sumarni has also benefited financially from the tourist influx, piggybacking it to set up a profitable food stall next to her modest home.

Retiree Chan Bi-yun, 58, takes a lot of the credit for Houtong's feline-induced rebirth.

"I started raising five cats that belonged to a neighbor who passed away nine years ago and they gave birth to more and more kitties," she said. "Now I feed about half of Houtong's cat population."

Chan said most of her proteges wander freely and she provides special help only for abandoned kittens. She also gets assistance from volunteers who provide free veterinary care and cat food.

Like Sumarni, she has profited from the tourist influx, setting up a stall that sells cat-related souvenirs.

Mobile phone dangles with different feline shapes appeared to be a particularly fast mover, though cat-imprinted pursues were giving them a good run for their money.